Washington, 9 September 1997 (RFE/RL) - The U.S. Congress is considering legislation setting a national standard for declaring a motorist too drunk to drive, and supporters of the proposal say the death of Britain's Princess Diana might at least serve to focus attention on the issue of drunk driving in the United States.
French authorities continue to investigate the circumstances of the August 30 accident in Paris that killed Princess Diana, her friend Emad Fayed and their driver, Henri Paul. Press reports, however, alleged that Paul was three, or even four times over the standard for intoxication when the car crashed in a tunnel.
One of the leading campaigners for stronger regulations in the U.S., a group called Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), says that if any good is to emerge from Diana's death, it should be the knowledge that drunken driving is still a serious problem.
"What the public needs to realize is that while this was a horrible thing, it happens every day," says the group's public policy director Robert Shearhouse. He says drunk drivers cause a fatal traffic accident every 30 minutes in the U.S.
A nationwide campaign against drunk driving, spurred on in large part by families of people killed by drunken drivers, brought traffic fatalities caused by alcohol abuse down by 30 percent in the U.S. in the 1980s and early 1990s.
However, organizations such as MADD say the rate of decrease in traffic deaths stopped in 1995 and stayed at about the same level in 1996. U.S. Government statistics show that more than 17,000 people were killed in accidents caused by drunk drivers in both 1995 and 1996. Drunk driving accounts for about 40 percent of all traffic deaths.
MADD, and other groups, say drunk driving deaths can be prevented if police are empowered to take greater numbers of intoxicated drivers off the highways. Police would be able to do this, the safe driving groups say, if lower limits for drunk driver designations were set.
The legislation is opposed by the American Beverage Institute and other organizations that represent the interests of the alcoholic beverage industry. The Institute contends the drunk driving problem is caused in large part by a hard core of alcohol abusers who pay no attention to safe driving campaigns and who are not adequately punished by the courts.
"We ought not let a single tragedy define where we go on this issue," Jeff Becker, a spokesman for the Beer Institute told the Congressional Monitor newsletter. "It's not the limit we have to focus on but the people who continue to drive with high blood alcohol levels."
The measure used internationally to determine a driver's level of intoxication is called Blood Alcohol Concentration, or BAC. The BAC is the amount, in grams, of alcohol that is present in one liter of blood. The BAC is used to establish the legal limit for declaring a motorist too drunk to drive. Researchers say that the average person's ability to drive a car becomes impaired when the BAC reaches 0.03 percent.
The degree of impairment can be accurately measured by a small device used by police around the world that is called a breathalyzer. The most accurate reading comes from a blood sample analyzed in a hospital.
The BAC limits vary from nation to nation. Poland, for example, has a standard of 0.02 percent. Britain's limit is 0.08. In France, the limit is 0.05 percent. The driver of Diana's car, according to unofficial reports, had a BAC of 0.18.
The U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says a man weighing 77 kilograms would reach a BAC of 0.08 percent if he drank in one hour four glasses of wine holding about .15 liters each. It would take three similar drinks for a woman weighing 62 kilograms to reach the same level in the same time.
In the United States, the legislatures of each of the 50 states make the traffic laws, and the BAC varies within the United States. Some 33 states have a limit of 0.10 percent. Fifteen states have set the limit at 0.08, which is the predominant limit in the industrialized world, and two U.S. states do not have set limits.
The Federal Government of the U.S. does not have the constitutional power to make local traffic laws. The government in Washington though, does have some tools at its disposal to encourage compliance by the states with national policies. One of these tools is money. The legislation now pending in Congress would withhold annual highway transportation grants from states that do not conform to the 0.08 BAC standard.
States rely on the federal highway money to maintain their interstate highways and bridges, and supporters of the legislation hope the threat of losing grants will be enough of an incentive for the state legislatures that have not adopted the 0.08 limit.
Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-New Jersey), the chief sponsor of legislation, says the lower BAC will save between 500 and 700 lives a year. Lautenberg and Senator Michael DeWine (R-Ohio) and Congresswoman Nita Lowey (D-New York), had been planning to introduce the BAC legislation long before Princess Diana was killed, but their staffs agreed that Diana's death would add a powerful image to their anti-drunk driving campaign.